Jewish World Review Nov. 22, 2004 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
A special kind of justice
Power and principle have rarely coexisted well in Washington. However, even
in a city that long ago lost the ability to blush, the Wednesday vote of
Republican House members on Majority Leader Tom DeLay's possible indictment
left many breathless. The Republicans did away with an ethics rule that
would have forced DeLay to resign from his post if he is, as some expect,
indicted in Texas for criminal acts related to fundraising. It is only the
latest act of collusion by House members in supporting DeLay, who has become
the "Teflon Don" of Beltway politics.
It was only a few weeks ago that the House Committee on Standards of
Official Conduct reprimanded the Texas Republican for violating House ethics
rules in a different controversy. It was vintage Beltway theater. The
reprimand was crafted to avoid any real punishment of DeLay, who immediately
claimed a curious type of victory and thanked the committee for offering
"guidance" on such issues.
Now DeLay faces the possibility of an actual criminal charge in Texas. Close
associates of DeLay have been indicted in Austin on charges involving
illegal fundraising solicitations and campaign contributions. DeLay wanted
the Republicans to take control of the Texas House of Representatives before
redistricting. However, it is illegal to solicit or spend corporate funds on
political campaigns in Texas. One of the letters seized by federal
investigators is from a vice president of a natural gas company that reads:
"Dear Congressman DeLay: I am pleased to forward our contribution of $25,000
for the TRMPAC that we pledged at the June 2, 2002, fundraiser." TRMPAC
stands for DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority political action
DeLay is a curious figure in a town that tends to devour those who stumble
and fall. His brushes with indictments and reprimands only seem to add to
his mystique in the way that the late New York don John Gotti grew in
popularity with every hung jury. Indeed, in his triumphant public
statements, DeLay seemed to morph with the character of Big Jule in "Guys
and Dolls," who proudly proclaims his record as "33 arrests, no
convictions." The scene is a riot because Big Jule is so out of touch with
the measure of good society. In the halls of Congress, DeLay appears even
more out of touch with the measure of good government. Yet his most recent
reprimands only highlight a fatally flawed and feeble congressional ethics
system, where ethical recidivists are allowed to flourish.
Like Big Jule, DeLay long has been the feared heavy in the House. A former
exterminator, DeLay is called "The Hammer" for his use of power to punish
those who fail to show, as Big Jule's friend Harry the Horse would say, "the
proper respect" for his positions.
DeLay seems to thrive in the borderland between the merely unethical and the
outright criminal. He has spent the last 10 years embroiled in scandals
involving allegations of bribery, retaliation, criminal fundraising
violations and unlawful campaign practices.
In its recent report, the Republican-led House ethics committee found that
DeLay offered to help elect the son of retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to
Congress in exchange for Smith's vote in favor of the controversial Medicare
prescription-drug bill. (Smith originally claimed DeLay mentioned $100,000
in contributions, but later stated that no specific money figure was
conveyed.) As the committee stated in its report, "It is improper for a
member to offer or link support for the personal interests of another member
as part of a quid pro quo to achieve a legislative goal." Rep. Candice
Miller (R-Mich.) and Smith also were reprimanded for ethics violations in
It was a result so contrived it would have made even Big Jule blush. The
committee first made sure to reprimand DeLay and his accuser. The report
then avoided any real punishment such as censure while imposing a symbolic
punishment (that was gleefully accepted by DeLay). Then, the committee
released the report minutes before the first presidential debate, an old
Washington technique to bury a negative report in the crush of coverage of a
While he's a big supporter of tough sentencing laws, DeLay is fortunate that
there is no three-strikes law for the unethical. Consider his other
Ultimately, the most recent DeLay investigation says more about Congress
than it does about the House majority leader. Congress has ethics rules
riddled with loopholes, ambiguities and permitted conflicts of interests.
Ethics violations are investigated by other members who critics charge are
selected for their "reliability."
The solution is obvious. Congress should create an independent office of
ethics. Congress also needs to rewrite the ethics rules, which are written
to be so ambiguous and vague that the House ethics committee has absolute
leeway in finding or ignoring violations.
DeLay may be happy with the performance of the House committee, but there is
little reason for the public to celebrate. Until there are serious reforms,
Justice "DeLayed" will remain justice denied in Congress.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington
and the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George
Washington University Law School.
Click here to visit his website. Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Jonathan Turley